By Eugene L. Meyer
RISMEDIA, Oct. 22, 2007-It used to be that Web surfing at on the job was verboten, a waste of valuable company time and a cause for discipline if not downright dismissal. That was then.
Now, in some quarters, schmoozing on the Internet is even considered part of the job. It’s also been given a more proper name, “social networking,” which is loosely defined as a means of sharing and learning on-line from other professionals who constitute a “community of interest,” with potential payback to the bottom line.
Or so its promoters contend.
“It’s really in its infancy stages in the real estate business,” says Steve Rodgers, president and CEO or Prudential California Realty. “It’s just starting to creep into the business, and it’s going to get some legs in the near future. I think it’s going to start heating up real quickly in the months and years ahead.”
Marty Frame, chief information officer of Fidelity Real Estate Solutions, a division of title insurance and real estate services company Fidelity National Financial, calls it “a potentiality.” He says, “There are already brokers and agents who get it. If someone comes to them with a good product, they’ll learn how to exploit it and do it effectively.”
Its development may well still be in the zygote stage, but talking about social networking is all the rage in the industry, which, in the current economic climate is assiduously seeking new ways to build business. In essence, social networking is a tech savvy way to reach out and touch someone, virtually speaking, who wants to buy or sell a house or just chat on-line. It’s sort of the “Field of Dreams” model: If you build it, they will come.
“It’s another way to reach people and another way to differentiate yourself, because a lot of Realtors are too lazy or afraid to learn about it, or their priorities are other than learning to meet new people,” says Saul Klein, CEO of Internet Crusade, of San Diego. “They’d rather go to the Kiwanis Club luncheon once a month and sit with the same people for 15 years.”
Well, excuse me, but even skeptics concede that the real estate business, perhaps more than most, is all about social networking, whatever form it takes. In Social Networking Web 2.0, as some are calling it, it can be an on-line forum, a blog, a Facebook or MySpace page, or even the Ranchero neighborhood on Second Life, a virtual world on the Internet that has attracted 9.2 million “residents,” of whom 463,658 logged on during a recent seven-day span, and so far one actual real estate firm, Coldwell Banker.
The real estate giant created its own virtual sales office on Second Life earlier this year, generating network and newspaper coverage. The site allows visitors to virtually “tour” Second Life homes for sale. In one case, Coldwell Banker created a virtual tour of an actual house for sale on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. It sold, real time, for $3 million.
While others may be exploring such ventures, on Second Life or similar sites, the real estate industry has been more venturesome in the blogging world, where agents and brokers share their thoughts on line with interested parties, be they consumers or other professionals.
“We are seeing blogging taking the real estate professional by storm right now,” writes Steven Groves, of Realty Experts Inc. of Phoenix, in his own blog recently. “Early estimates are that almost 70 percent of the community will begin blogging this year. Some think this is a silver bullet to connecting with clients-reality says it is not.”
On-line chat rooms have also sprung up, created not by brokers but by tech firms that have discovered a new niche operating such sites, not only for real estate agents but also for other professionals, such as doctors and public relations specialists.
“The operators are technology providers,” says Barry Hurd, president of Social Media Systems, of Redmond, Washington, who works with the real estate industry. “The reason agents and brokers participate is that it gives them key word traffic on search engines and allows them to share their professional ideas with potential clients.”
The forums are free for participants but generate some revenue through advertising. Those directed towards real estate include www.activerain.com, which on Sept. 2 claimed 45,954 members, and www.realtown.com, which said it had 61,846 members.
Marty Frame calls Active Rain “by far the most far along of any of them. They have a relatively active community of people who have credible and serious conversations about real estate at both the local and national levels. The quality of participants is real strong. They’ve done a good job, just thinking about how to turn it outward to the consumer.”
However, he adds, “There is no business model yet. I’m hard-pressed to know how they make money.”
RISMedia also has its own social networking “real estate forum” on-line. “RIS is the only one that has a sponsorship ability, where a Realtor can sponsor and own a metropolitan area on-line,” says Hurd, who worked on the RIS site. “A broker or agent pays a sponsorship fee. Then, any key word traffic generated on a search engine to RISMedia for that geographic area goes to the sponsor of that area.”
Pat Jones, a Cleveland-area insurance agent, has been busy working all social networking channels. He has profiles on Linkedin.com, Ryze,com, and MySpace.com, and a blog, “Pied Piper Speaks on Real Estate.” In a recent posting on RISMedia’s forum, Jones wrote:
“Social networks connect people at low cost; this can be beneficial for entrepreneurs and small businesses looking to expand their contact base. These networks often act as a customer relationship management tool for companies selling products and services. Companies can also use social networks for advertising in the form of banners and text ads. Since businesses operate globally, social networks can make it easier to keep in touch with contacts around the world.”
But for now social networking is not a corporate thing. “I’m not sure a lot is happening on a company level,” says Frame, whose firm provides software solutions for brokers, agents, and MLS’s. “The CEO community has its own networking groups. So there is not a sense there right now that jumping into social networking is going to improve communication or add it where it doesn’t exist. Real estate is one of the most socially networked industries anywhere. But nobody’s come along and said we have a MySpace or Facebook for real estate practitioners. ”
Frame’s company has started mining MySpace as a “great way of finding a network out there. We have a page there (www.myspace.com/cyberhomes) where our folks can go and express their ‘friendship’ with our products. MySpace is great for saying, ‘If you’re already on MySpace, we can find each other here and connect up and create a dialogue.’ You can still play golf with them and talk with them over the phone. But people are using these things in their personal lives, and it’s interesting how the personal ends up meeting the professional.”
Frame cautions, however, that “all these things to be successful require an enormous amount of time. We’re intrigued by them but couldn’t tell you what the payoff is right now. Probably, it’s nothing. We probably wouldn’t be doing any of it if we didn’t have a savvy 23-year old intern here who is into this stuff.”
However, in the blogosphere, Frame says, “in terms of the user-generated category, particularly among agents, there are some folks doing it with enthusiasm and some success. Unquestionably, the mainstream hasn’t found its way to this kind of stuff yet.”
Frame, for one, doesn’t blog. “I don’t have time for it,” he says. “I already work 20 hours a day. Anybody who blogs will tell you be prepared to make an investment, and properly so, because half-baked won’t get you anywhere. Some get obsessed and make it a fulltime job.”
Put simply, blogs are “a form of content production,” Frame says. “Someone sits and commits thoughts and ideas and videos and whatever media they want to attach, and creates a feed. A network is really more about connection than content. A MySpace page is a great way to get distribution. Anyone can create a blog. It’s a question of getting traffic to it.”
Steve Rodgers blogs. In his first posting, on July 31, Rodgers wrote his reason for blogging “is to establish an ongoing conversation with you and our consumer audience … to share information and views … and, eventually, to build something invaluable: a community.”
“Everyone’s yearning to connect, to share, to be heard,” says the Prudential California executive, whose firm has 4,000 agents in 95 offices from San Diego up the coast to San Luis Obispo. He estimates that as many as 75% have a Web site; 40% have a site and a blog; and maybe 100 to 150 are “conscious of social networking and maximizing it.”
“I have a lot of vendors promoting various packages to our agents,” he says. “The agents are very leery. They feel they might be throwing money down a rabbit hole. A lot of my newer, tech-savvy agents are experimenting with those things on their own.”
Rodgers says he knows how to market to boomers, but it’s the next generation “who communicate through these vehicles” he hopes to reach. They are people like his daughter, 20, and son, 27. “If I didn’t text message, I wouldn’t speak to them half the time.”
But social networking has its pitfalls.
“As much as this social networking and blogging stuff is intriguing,” Rodgers says, “it’s opened up a whole new wild, wild West of compliance issues. It’s quite scary. It’s one thing to open up a local newspaper and see what your agents are doing. It’s another thing to have a huge Internet. There’s no way to catch everything on line 24/7, and sometimes some of the things they say and promote are not what we want.
“If you’re a franchise, there are all kinds of rules on proper logos. Sometimes it’s as detail-oriented as using proper housing phrases, to comply with fair housing regulations.
“Also, too, a lot of times, the agents are giving their opinions. We had an agent who was very diligent about doing her blog. She was sometimes saying things to make her look better and playing down other agents. She’s entitled to her opinion, but there are certain rules we’re governed by. We sat down with her, applauded her for keeping up with her blog but counseled her. She was gracious and complied very quickly. She’s still an agent for us.
“As great as the Internet is,” says Rodgers, “it opens up a whole new arena I don’t think brokers and the industry are anywhere close to dealing with yet. It takes more time, energy and cost to monitor and make sure everyone’s playing by the rules. It’s a delicate balance.”
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